In Philadelphia, a city that cherishes its history and is the proud birthplace of the Constitution, one would think that institutions of higher education would honor First Amendment rights on campus. Yet when it comes to students' and professors' freedom of speech, Drexel University and Temple University stand out for all the wrong reasons. As a new academic year beckons, it's well past time for that to change.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which was founded in Philadelphia in 1999, defends free-speech and other individual rights of college students and faculty members across the country. Even with FIRE's national mission, though, the organization puts extra effort into making sure that the colleges and universities in its hometown abide by their constitutional duties and their own promises.
Unfortunately, both Drexel and Temple have missed the mark for years.
Each institution maintains written policies restricting students' right to free speech. FIRE calls these restrictions "speech codes," and, between them, Drexel and Temple have a number of such restrictions in their policy materials. These codes prevent students from speaking freely, cast a chill over campus discussion and dialogue, and threaten disciplinary action for speech and expressive activity that should be encouraged — not punished — in a college setting.
Drexel, for example, forbids students from posting any materials on campus that "may be viewed as demeaning or degrading to a person or group of persons." It then follows up that policy by stating that actionable hostile environment harassment potentially includes "denigrating jokes" and "written or graphic material" that "shows hostility or aversion toward an individual or group."
It would be pretty difficult to go through four years of college without ever reading a novel, article, poem, or short story that does not express some level of hostility or aversion for any individual or group.
The university has apparently not learned its lesson from years ago, when it was widely skewered for a speech code prohibiting, as harassment, "inappropriately directed laughter." Not only was the policy patently absurd, it resurrected an old speech code at the University of Connecticut that had already been struck down in federal court in 1990.
Temple, for its part, currently subjects its students to disciplinary action merely for "\[p\]articipation" in an "unrecognized student organization." It goes without saying that this policy is an affront to students' freedom of association under the First Amendment. (Perhaps someone in the Temple administration saw the movie Old School and decided to preempt something similar by enacting this policy.)
Like Drexel, Temple appears not to have learned from experience. In Temple's case, the lesson was from an embarrassing defeat in federal court.
In 2008, the university had its sexual-harassment policy struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (right here in Philadelphia) after a graduate student challenged it on First Amendment grounds. This should have been all the wake-up call the university needed.
As a new academic year gets under way, students and faculty members at both of these universities deserve better. What their institutions should be striving for is FIRE's highest, "green light" rating for campus speech policies. A green light means that a university does not maintain any written policies that seriously imperil free speech. It is a lofty goal, but also one that is perfectly attainable.
After all, four institutions — George Mason University, Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Western State Colorado University — have already improved to FIRE's highest free-speech rating this year alone. At these schools, students, professors, and administrators who care about freedom of expression worked with FIRE to improve their speech codes. The end result was a win for the First Amendment and for campus discourse.
There is no reason Drexel and Temple can't accomplish the same. Indeed, they need look no further for inspiration than to their neighbors at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn has long enjoyed a green-light rating from FIRE, something the university and those affiliated with it should be proud of every day.
Drexel and Temple are out of excuses. The good news is that if the schools want to reform their speech codes, they can easily do so by contacting FIRE to help them work through their policies. It is the least FIRE could do to restore a great Philadelphia tradition: free speech.